In Uganda, refugee women’s leadership is driving inclusive humanitarian action

In recent years, refugee settlements in two districts of Uganda have provided a concrete demonstration of this trend.

Although women and children make up 81% of the approximately 1.53 million refugees in Uganda, the leadership of refugee settlement has historically lacked female representation. Cultural barriers, coupled with limited knowledge of rights and access to education, have prevented women from participating in decision-making processes.

In 2018, UN Women began providing training to women and youth in Adjumani and Yumbe districts, which host 30.1 per cent of Uganda’s total refugee population. The trainings included literacy, numeracy, women’s rights, leadership and life skills development, public speaking, debating and radio presentation. The results were startling.

“Before participating in the leadership training, I was a shy person. I couldn’t speak because of fear,” says Joy Aiba, a South Sudanese refugee living in Bidibidi refugee camp in Yumbe district. Now she feels empowered to make her voice heard within the school’s leadership.

Ugandan refugee camps are governed by Refugee Protection Committees (RWCs), whose members are directly elected by the refugee community under the supervision of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). RWC elections are held every two years. While guidelines for RWCs call for 30% refugee representation, women have not stood for election and leadership positions.

That has changed since training. “Leadership skills enabled me to speak on behalf of women in meetings,” says Aiba. “At the moment, I am the RWC chairman for my village in Zone I. In Zones I and II, most of the leaders are now women.”

Aiba’s experience is echoed by other leadership training participants. “Through the training, we realized that as refugee women, we actually have the right to contest any position in the RWC,” says Rose Aliyah, a South Sudanese refugee living in the settlement of Pagirinya in Adjumani district. It gave me the courage to contest the position of president of RWC I in my village. My victory encouraged more women to run for office.”

Mara R. Wilmoth